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Ben Agro (EngSci 2T3) will begin a PhD in Computer Science in Fall 2023. (Photo: Submitted)

When Ben Agro (EngSci 2T3) arrived at U of T Engineering after high school, he didn’t know what to expect or how difficult his courses would be.  

“I worked really hard that first year, but not in a way that was efficient or followed a particular technique,” he says. “But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened towards the end of that year, and it forced me to learn about how I was learning.”  

What Agro discovered was that he thrived in an asynchronous environment that allowed him to process lecture slides on his own. He found his retention also went up when he adopted spaced repetition, a learning technique that uses flashcards to recall information.   

“I would go through each of my lecture slides and notes and make cards in a question-and-answer format, which I then uploaded on to an app that helped me review in a way that increased my retention by prioritizing the concepts I had the most difficulty with,” he says.  

“It really reduced the amount of time I had to study for tests because I wasn’t cramming — I already knew what I had learned.”  

Agro’s hard work has paid off, as he graduates this June with a 4.0 GPA and the highest grades among his cohort of fellow graduates across U of T’s three campuses.  

 This distinction makes him the 2023 recipient of the John Black Aird Scholarship, which is awarded annually to the top undergraduate student at U of T. He is also receiving a Governor General’s Silver Medal for his excellent academic record. 

“I didn’t really expect to receive these awards so it’s a nice surprise,” says Agro. “These past four years have been hard but full of many new experiences that helped me understand what I am truly capable of.”  

Agro is also an avid rock climber and relates his experiences with bouldering — a form of rock climbing that is done without the use of ropes and harnesses — to the challenges of studying engineering.  

“The main similarity between the two is that feeling of progression. When you start bouldering, and you try a new climb, it can feel completely impossible,” he says. “But then, after working on it and training over time, the impossible suddenly becomes achievable.  

“I also feel the same way about my academic life: the more I’ve learned, the easier it has been for me to pick up new things because they sort of build in the same way.” 

Man wearing grey shorts and shirt is bouldering, a form of rock climbing.
Ben Agro enjoys bouldering when he is not studying and working on research. (Photo: Submitted).

During his undergraduate career, Agro took the time to build his research expertise through summer internships, beginning with a post at the Autonomous Space and Robotics Lab, supervised by Professor Tim Barfoot (UTIAS).  

He spent the next summer as a research intern at the Robotics Vision and Learning Lab, supervised by Professor Florian Shkurti (UTM Mathematics & Computational Science). For his third summer internship, Agro tailored his search to industry research labs, eventually accepting an opportunity to be a researcher at Waabi, where he worked on next-generation autonomous driving systems under Professor Raquel Urtasun (Computer Science), founder and CEO of the startup.  

“My third-year internship at Waabi turned into a part-time internship throughout my fourth year, which allowed me to finish up some projects,” he says. “And once I finished my final exams, I began working there full time as a research scientist.” 

Agro will also be starting a direct-entry PhD under the supervision of Urtasun in the fall, with research related to autonomous driving.  

“I haven’t decided on an area of focus yet,” he says. “But I know I want to complete my PhD and do it while I’m working because I am eager to make immediate contributions to the autonomous driving arena.” 

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